My web browser marks the changing seasons as well as anything. Right now my most visited sites include Sports Source Analytics and the hubs for my fantasy football team and our weekly pick ’em contest. But soon, they will give way to Basketball Reference, the Bracket Matrix, and of course, KenPom.com. A moment of silence for RPI Forecast, a longtime friend of the blog from back when we were trying to figure out if Cuonzo Martin’s first team could play their way in from a triple-digit RPI in December. The NCAA is moving on to something they call NET, which one can only hope will find an obsessive website of its own.
The move away from RPI is a nice step forward, but KenPom remains king of the advanced stats conversation. Last year the Vols were picked 13th in the SEC in the media poll. KenPom had the Vols sixth in his 2017-18 preseason ratings, and 43rd nationally.
This year’s preseason ratings have swung the other way, of course, with the Vols now the hunted. Tennessee is sixth in the AP poll, the program’s highest preseason rating ever. Tennessee is down at 11th in the initial 2018-19 KenPom ratings, but here the rating is more important than the ranking.
The Vols are at +21.14 (the number of points they’re expected to win by vs the average team in 100 possessions). Last year Tennessee finished at +22.27, the second-highest rating of the KenPom era (since 2002). The 2008 Vols finished at +22.17. Tennessee’s KenPom leader, as we like to point out from time to time, is actually Cuonzo Martin’s last team at +23.69. Like S&P+ in college football, it’s not a measure of your resume (and doesn’t value an end-of-game play more than the first possession; so the 2014 Vols aren’t punished for Antwan Space’s theatrics). It’s a measure of your efficiency on every possession; I always like to think of it as, “Which team would I least like to play?” Cuonzo’s Vols were bad at closing games (and finished 341st in KenPom’s luck ratings in 2014), but put more players in the NBA than any Tennessee team in my lifetime. Doing things like beating #1 seed Virginia by 35 and winning eight of nine before the Michigan loss by an average of 21 points is how you get that kind of rating.
This year the Vols are in a crowded field of teams, but I don’t know if I’d call it the second tier. In KenPom’s ratings, only one team is set apart in the preseason rankings: Kansas, also number one in the AP and Coaches’ polls. The Jayhawks are +29.27, nearly four points better than Duke at +25.44.
Think of it this way: for Tennessee, how many teams out there are simply better than us?
The Vols faced Villanova last November and battled for a half. But the Wildcats outscored Tennessee by 21 in the second half, winning by nine. And the proof was ultimately in the pudding: Nova won the title for the second time in three years, and amassed a +33.76 rating. Other than Kentucky’s almost-undefeated 2015 squad (+36.91), it was the best rating of any team in ten years.
Villanova was just better than us, and while anything can happen on any given night in a single elimination sport, there was no shame in losing to that Nova team. The early ratings suggest there’s only one such team this season: Kansas, who the Vols may get a shot at over Thanksgiving in New York City.
The usual suspects from Duke, North Carolina, and of course Kentucky are all ranked higher than Tennessee in KenPom. But their ratings are all within about three points of the Vols. With Rick Barnes you know you’ll get plenty of chances to find out what you’ve got: aside from a possible date with Kansas and the SEC opportunities, Gonzaga and West Virginia are rated ninth and tenth in KenPom as well. You won’t have to wonder about Tennessee, but it’s not just the good feelings from last year that suggest the Vols should have every chance to win against everyone, only a little less true against Kansas.
What’s more, last year SB Nation’s Villanvoa blog looked at the KenPom profiles of national champions. With one outlier – 2014 UConn, who won it all as a #7 seed – every national champion has finished in the Top 20 of both KenPom offense and defense. That list in the 2018-19 preseason ratings: Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Villanova, Kentucky, Syracuse, Gonzaga, and Tennessee.
There’s a lot to be excited about. And the numbers back up the idea that the Vols were far more than a feel-good story last year. If healthy, Tennessee shouldn’t find themselves at a disadvantage against almost anyone. And, along with plenty of other marquee opportunities this year, they might get to find out about the almost in just a few weeks.